Victorian London - Publications - Social Investigation/Journalism - The Business of Pleasure, by Edmund Yates, 1879 - Chapter 27 - Innocents Day

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CHAPTER XXVII.

INNOCENTS DAY.

ON the evening of Wednesday, the 3rd of June, a contest was waged between the two guardian angels respectively typifying Pleasure and Duty, who are appointed to watch over the humble person of the present writer. These contests are by no means of unfrequent occurrence but as this was a specially sharp tussle, and as it ended by Duty getting the best of it - which is very seldom the case - I feel bound to record it. This humble person was, on the occasion in question, seated in his small suburban garden, on a rustic seat (than which he ventures to opine in regard to the hardness of the surface to be sat upon, its slipperiness, its normal dampness, and the tendency of its knobbly formation towards irritation of the spinal cord, there cannot be a more distressing piece of furniture), was smoking an after-dinner pipe, and was contemplating the glowing relics of the splendid day fast being swallowed up in the gray of the evening, when he felt a slight (mental) tap on his left shoulder, and became aware of the invisible presence of Pleasure.
    "Lovely evening !" said Pleasure.
    "Gorgeous!" said the present writer, who had had his dinner, and was proportionally enthusiastic.
    "Splendid for Ascot to-morrow!"
    "Mag-nificent!"
    [-281-] "You'll go, of course?"
    Mental tap on my right shoulder, and still small voice: "You'll do nothing of the sort!" Ha, ha! I thought, Duty has come to the charge, then.
    "Well!" I hesitated, "you see I -"
    "What!" exclaimed Pleasure, "are you in any doubt? Think of the drive down the cool calm Windsor Park, with the big umbrageous trees, the blessed stillness, the sweet fresh air! Then the course, so free and breezy, the odour of the trodden turf; the excitement of the race, the-"
    "Think of how to pay your tailor," whispered Duty the triumph of a receipted bill, the comfort of knowing that you're wearing your own coat and not Schnipp and Company's property! Stick to your great work on Logarithms; be a man, and earn your money."
    "You'll kill the man! " said Pleasure, beginning to get angry. "You know what all work and no play makes Jack."
    "His name isn't Jack, and if it were, what then?" retorted Duty. "Do you know what all play and no work makes a man, or rather what it leaves him ? A purposeless idiot, a shambling, loafing idler, gaping through his day, and wasting other people's precious time. Ah! if some of your followers, 'votaries of pleasure,' as they're called, both male and female, had some permanent occupation for only a few hours of the day, the sin, and crime, and misery that now degrade the world might be reduced by at least one-half!"
    "Don't talk of my followers, if you please, old lady!" shouted Pleasure, highly indignant. "No need to say that none are allowed in your case, I should think. With your horribly stern ideas you do far more mischief than I. Ever holding you before their eyes, men slave and slave until such wretched life as is left them terminates at middle age ; seen through your glasses, life is a huge sandy desert, [-282-] watered by the tears of the wretched pilgrims, but yielding no blade of hope, no flower of freshness. I hate such cant!"
    "Madam!" said Duty, with grave courtesy, "your language is low. I leave you."
    "And I leave you, you old frump!" And both guardian angels floated away Pleasure, as she passed, bending over me, and murmuring in my ear, " You'll go to Ascot!"
    But when I came indoors and examined the contents of my cash-box, I found that the waters were very low indeed; when I looked on my desk and saw about fifteen written slips of paper (my great work on Logarithms) on the right-hand side, and about five hundred perfectly blank and virgin slips on the left ; when I thought of the bills that were "coming on," and of the bills that had recently passed by without having been "met," I determined to stick steadily to my work, and to give up all idea of the races. In this state of mind I remained all night, and - shutting my eyes to the exquisite beauty of the day - all the early morning, and in which state of mind I still continued, when, immediately after breakfast, I was burst in upon by Oppenhart - of course waving a ticket.
    It is a characteristic of Oppenhart's always to be waving tickets! A good fellow with nothing particular to do (he is in a government office), he has hit upon an excellent method of filling up his leisure by becoming a member of every imaginable brotherhood, guild, society, or chapter, for the promotion of charity and the consumption of good dinners. What proud position he holds in the grand masonic body I am unable positively to state. On being asked, he replies that he is a - something alphabetical, I'm afraid to state what, but a very confusing combination of letters - then he is an Odd Fellow, and an Old Friend, and a Loving Brother, and a Rosicrucian, and a Zoroaster, and a Druid, [-283-] and a Harmonious Owl, and an Ancient Buffalo. I made this latter discovery myself; for having been invited by a convivial friend to dine at the annual banquet of his "herd," I found there Oppenhart, radiant in apron and jewel and badge, worshipped by all around. He has drawers full of aprons, ribbons, stars, and "insignia;" he is always going to initiate a novice, or to pass a degree, or to instal an arch, or to be steward at a festival; and he is always waving tickets of admission to charitable dinners, where you do not enjoy yourself at all, and have to subscribe a guinea as soon as the cloth is drawn. So that when I saw the card in his hand I made up my mind emphatically to decline, and commenced shaking my head before he could utter a word.
    " Oppenhart, once for all, I WON'T! The Druids sit far too late, and there's always a difference of opinion among the Harmonious Owls. I've got no money to spare, and I won't go."
    "Well, but you've been boring me for this ticket for the last three years!" says Oppenhart. "Don't you know what to-day is? it's Innocents' Day."
    I thought the Innocents were some new brotherhood to which he had attached himself; and I rebelled again ; but he explained that he meant thus metaphorically to convey that that day was the anniversary meeting of the charity children in St. Paul's, a gathering at which I had often expressed a wish to be present, and for which he had procured me a ticket. " Got it from Brother Pugh, J.G.W., Bumblepuppy Lodge of Yorkshire, No. 1, who is on the committee; don't tell Barker I gave it you, or I should never know peace again."
    Captain Barker is Oppenhart's shadow, dresses at him, follows him into his charities, his dinners, and his clubs, and though but a faint reflex of the great original, yet, owing to the possession of a swaggering manner and a bow-wowy [-284-] voice, so patronises his Mentor that the latter's life is a burden to him.
    I promised not to tell Barker, I took the ticket, I decided to go, and I went. Even Duty could not have urged much against such a visit, the mode of transit to which was the sixpenny omnibus! My card was admissible between ten and twelve, but it was scarcely eleven when I reached St. Paul's, and I thought I would amuse myself by watching the arriving company. Carriages were pouring into the churchyard thick and fast, a few hired flys, but principally private vehicles, sedate in colour, heavy in build, filled with smug gentlemen, smugger ladies and demure daughters, driven by sedate coachmen, and conveying serious footmen behind, drawn by horses which had a Claphamite air, utterly different from the prancing tits of the Parks - sober easygoing animals, laying well to collar, and doing the work cut out for them in all seriousness and gravity. Preceded by beadles, gorgeous creatures in knobbly gowns and cockades like black fans in their hats (who, however, were so utterly unable to make any impression on the crowd that they had themselves to enlist the services of; and to be taken in tow by, the police), flanked by the clergymen of the parish, generally painfully modest at the gaze of the multitude, the troops of charity children came pouring in from every side; and, round each door was gathered an admiring crowd, principally composed of women, watching the entrance of the schools. The excitement among these good people was very great. "Here's our school, mother!" cried a big bouncing girl of eighteen, evidently "in service." "Look at Jane, ain't she nice? Lor, she's forgot her gloves!" and then she telegraphed at a tremendous rate to somebody who didn't see her, and was loud in her wailing. Two old women were very politely confidential to each other. "Yes, mem, this is St. Saviour's School, mem, and a good school it is, mem!" "Oh, I know it well, mem! which it was my [-285-] parish until I moved last Janiwarry, and shall always think of partin' with regret; mem! "Ho! indeed, mem! Now, to be sure ! Wos you here last year, mem? No, you wos not! Ah, it wos a wet day, a dreadful disappointment, mem! though our children made the best on it, the boys wore their capes, and the gals wos sent in cabs, they wos!" Nearly everywhere the sight of the children made a pleasant impression. I saw two regular Old Bailey birds, with the twisted curl and the tight cap and the grease-stained fustians, stop to look at them, and one of them, pointing with his pipe, said in quite a soft voice to the other: "Reg'lar pretty, ain't it?" The boys at St. Paul's School left off their play, and rushed at the grating which separates them from the passers-by and howled with delight ; the omnibus men pulled up short to let the children cross, and, possibly out of respect for such youthful ears, refrained from favouring their horses with any of their favourite appellations; only one person sneered - a very little person in human form, who climbed with difficulty into a high hansom. He was evidently Ascot-bound, and, as he drove off, lighted a very big cigar, which stuck out of his mouth like a bowsprit. This majestic little person curled his little lip at the mildness of our amusement.
    I went round, as my ticket directed me, to the north door of the cathedral, and found the entrance gaily covered in with canvas, surrounded by a crowd of gazers, and guarded by such large-whiskered and well-fed policemen as only the City can produce. Up some steps, and into the grasp of the stewards, duly decorated with blue watch-ribbons and gold medals like gilt crown-pieces. Stewards of all sorts - the bland steward, "This way, if you please. Your ticket? thank you. To the left; thank you!" with a bow and a smile as though you had done him a personal favour in coming ; the irritable steward, short, stout, and wiping his stubbly head with one hand, motioning to the advancing [-286-] people with the other - "Go back, sir! go back, sir! Can't you hear? Jenkins, turn these - Jenkins, where the dev-" (cut short by nudge from bland steward, who whispers). "Ah, I forgo! I mean where can Jenkins have got to? back, sir I the other side of that railing, do you hear me? back, sir!" - the sniggering steward, to whose charge the ladies are usually confided; the active steward, who springs over benches and arranges chairs; the passive nothing-doing steward, who looks on, and takes all the credit (not an uncommon proceeding in the world at large); and the misanthropic steward, who has been "let in" for his stewardship, who loathes his wand and leaves it in a dark corner, who hates his medal and tries to button his coat over it, who stares grimly at everything, and who has only one hope left -"to get out of the place." Types of all these generic classes were in St. Paul's, as they are in all charitable gatherings. Most excited of all were four holding plates, two on either side the door, and as each knot of people climbed the steps, the stewards rattled the plates until the shillings and half-sovereigns sprung up and leaped about as they do under the movement-compelling horsehair of the conjurer.
    Proceeding, I found myself under the grand dome of St. Paul's, in the middle of an arena with a huge semicircular wooden amphitheatre of seats, tier above tier, on either side of me, the pulpit facing me, and at my back the vast depth of the cathedral reaching to the west entrance completely thronged with people. The amphitheatre, reserved entirely for the children, presented a very curious appearance. A painted black board, or in some instances a gay banner inscribed with the name of the school, was stuck up on high as a guide. Thus I read: Ludgate Ward, Langbourn Ward, Rains' Charity; and the children were seated in rows one under the other, ranging from the top of the wooden erection to the bottom. A thin rope, or rail, divided one school from the other. Several of the schools had already taken [-287-] their places, the boys at the back and the girls in the front, in their modest little kerchiefs, their snowy bibs and tuckers, their (in many instances) remarkably picturesque caps, and their dresses in heavy hues of various sober colours. Between two schools thus settled down would come a blank space yet unoccupied, and thus the amphitheatre looked like the window of some linendraper's shop, as I have seen it when "set out" by some unskilful hand, with rivulets of pretty ribbons meandering from one common source, but with bits of the framework on which they rested showing between.
    Half-past eleven, and the seats specially reserved for holders of tickets are becoming full : elderly spinsters with poke bonnets and black mittens, pretty girls with full crinolines and large brass crosses on their red-edged prayer-books, a good many serious young men, whose appearance gives me a general notion of the committee of a literary institution, and a few languid and expensive men, who seem utterly lost, and gaze vacantly about them through rimless eyeglasses; the clergy in great force - short stout old gentlemen with no necks to speak of; only crumpled rolls of white linen between their chins and their chests ; tall thin old gentlemen with throats like cranes, done up in stiff white stocks with palpable brass buckles showing over their coat-collars; bland mellifluous young gentlemen in clear-starched dog-collars and M.B. waistcoats; and a few sensible clergymen wearing their beards and not losing one whit of reverend or benign appearance thereby. I take my seat next a pompous old gentleman in shiny black, who wears a very singular pair of gloves made of a thin gray shiny silk with speckles cunningly inwoven, which make his hand look like a salmon's back, a stout old gentleman who pushes me more than I like, and then scowls at me, and then says to his daughter : "Too hot! too close! we'd better have stopped at Shooter's 'Ill," in which sentiment I mentally concur. Now, the last vacant [-288-] spaces between the schools are filled up, and the children are so tightly packed that one would think every square inch must have been measured beforehand and duly allotted. Each semicircle is like a sloping bed of pretty flowers. White is the prevailing colour, interspersed with lines of dark blue, light blue, slate, gray, and here and there a vivid bit of scarlet; such coquettish little caps, puffed, and frilled, and puckered as though by the hands of the most expensive French clear-starchers ; such healthy happy little faces, with so much thoroughly English beauty of bright eye, and ruddy lip, and clear glowing complexion. Ah! the expenditure of yellow soap that must take place on the morning of Innocents' Day! All looked thoroughly clean and well, and, like the gentleman at his theological examination when asked to state which were the major and which were the minor prophets, I "wish to make no invidious distinctions." Yet I cannot refrain from placing on record that the girls of two of the schools had special adornments, the damsels of St. Botolph's, Aldgate, wearing a rose in their waistbands, while each of the little maidens of Aldgate Ward bore a nosegay of fresh wild flowers.
    Twelve o'clock, the children all rise up, and all heads are turned towards the south door. I look round in the direction and behold a fat elderly man, in a black gown and a curled wig, like a barrister, painfully toiling under the weight of an enormous gilt mace, which he carries across his arms after the fashion of pantomime-warriors generally. My pompous neighbour stirs up his daughter with his elbow, and whispers, with great reverence, "The Lord Mayor, my dear!" This great magnate is, however, unable to be present, but sends as his representative an alderman. There are the sheriffs appropriately dressed, this broiling June day, in scarlet gowns trimmed with fur, wearing enormous chains, and looking altogether cool and comfortable. They are ushered into their seats with much [-289-] ceremony, the elderly barrister puts the mace across the top of a pew, and seats himself immediately under the pulpit, in an exhausted condition. Two clergymen appear behind a raised table covered with red cloth; and, at a. given signal, the children proceed to their prefatory prayer, all the girls covering their faces simultaneously with their little white aprons; this has a most singular effect, and, for the space of a minute, the whole amphitheatre looks as though populated with those "veiled vestals"  with whose appearance the cunning sculptor-hand of Signor Monti made us familiar.
    When the children rise again, there rises simultaneously in a tall red box, like a Punch's show with the top off, an energetic figure in a surplice, armed with a long stick; the organ begins to play, and, led by the man in the surplice, the children commence the Hundredth Psalm, which is sung in alternate verses, the children on the right taking the first verse, and the second being taken up by those on the left. I had heard much of this performance, and, like all those things of which we hear much, I was a little disappointed. I had heard of people being very much affected ; of their bursting into tears, and showing other signs of being overcome. I saw nothing of this. The voices of the children were fresh, pure, and ringing; but where I stood at least, very close to the choir, there was a shrillness in the tone, which at times was discordant amid almost painful. There was also a marked peculiarity in the strong sibilation given to the letter "s in" any words in which it occurred.
    Several times during the ensuing service the children sang much in the same manner, and I began to think that all I had heard was overrated, when after a sermon, during which many of them had refreshed themselves with more than forty winks and considerably more than forty thousand nods, they burst into the glorious Hallelujah Chorus. The [-290-] result was astonishing. I cannot describe it. At each repetition of the word "Hallelujah" by the four thousand fresh voices, you felt your eyes sparkle and your cheeks glow. There was a sense of mental and physical exhilaration which I not only felt myself; but marked in all around me. Now for the first time I understood how the effect of which I had been told had been produced; now I comprehended how the "intelligent foreigner" (who is always brought forward as a reference) had said that such a performance could not be matched in the world.
    As I left the building the money-boxes were rattling again, and I, and many others, paid in our mites in gratitude for what we had seen and heard. I hope the children enjoyed themselves afterwards ; I hope they had not merely an intellectual treat. The end crowns the work, they say. In this case the work had been admirably performed, and I hope that the end which crowned it consisted of tea and buns.